The West Virginia Mountaineers tip off the 2010-11 Men's Basketball Season this Friday night at home against the Oakland Bears.
Last year's West Virginia Mountaineer basketball team rose to heights the program hadn't seen since the 1950s. Led by senior Da'Sean Butler, the season seemed to be one improbable shot after another, as the Mountaineers stormed to a Big East Tournament Championship and a run in the NCAA Tournament that ended in the National Semifinal. All of that belongs to the rose-tinted mist of the past now, and a new season awaits Bob Huggins and company. To understand what the future holds, there are a few questions that need to be addressed ...
1. What's been lost? This year, Butler and fellow senior Wellington Smith are gone, along with Devin Ebanks, who left early for the NBA. That's a heaping load of scoring and rebounding that will need to be replaced by the Mountaineers. However, the core of this team is experienced and ready to go, so I don't think scoring and rebounding will actually be much of an issue. What will be hard to replace are the intangibles, namely the Butler's ridiculous clutch shooting and Ebanks' lock-down man-to-man defense.
The Mountaineers wouldn't have been nearly as successful last season if Butler hadn't strung together a series of buzzer-beaters that almost single-handedly in the conference tournament. There is hope, however, that Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant can shoulder the big shots this season.
Replacing Ebanks' defense will be more difficult. When your schedule runs through the toughest conference in the country, it's beneficial to have a guy who can shut down the opposition's best player. If John Flowers can step into that role this season as the 'Eers long and quick defender, Bob Huggins' man-to-man scheme should reap dividends again this season.
2. What's been gained? As far as the roster, not much. Only two freshmen come to campus this year after the sad medical disqualification of Darrious Curry for a previously undetected heart problem. Guard Noah Cottrill was West Virginia's High School player of the year last season and had hoped to break into the guard rotation, but things aren't looking good right now for the pride of Logan County. Currently suspended indefinitely, the odds of Cottrill even seeing the floor this season look slim.
The Mountaineers also add 6'10" forward Kevin Noreen to an already deep frontcourt. Noreen set scoring and rebounding records last season in Minnesota at a small school against inferior competition, so the verdict is definitely still out. Noreen saw a few minutes in the exhibition game, but probably will find himself on the outside of the forward rotation by the time the Mountaineers reach conference play. Luckily, the Mountaineers are deep in the frontcourt, so it's unlikely he'll be needed.
While the Mountaineers don't gain much in the form new personnel, they do gain plenty of experience. The nucleus of this team won a Big East tournament title and a trip to the Final Four, and I don't expect it to back down from anyone.
3. What's going on in the backcourt? In the exhibition game, Huggins started Truck Bryant at the point, and Dalton Pepper at shooting guard. Whether or not that holds into the season remains to be seen. I, for one, would start Joe Mazzulla over Pepper for seniority reasons only. What is abundantly clear is that the 'Eers have two ballhandlers, Bryant and Mazzulla, and a whole stable of shooters. I expect Bryant and Mazzulla to spend a great deal of time sharing the backcourt together, since they are the team's primary playmakers. Playing them both at the same time would give the Mountaineers an unprecedented ability to penetrate off of the dribble, giving Bryant plenty of space for jumpshots.
Casey Mitchell, Dalton Pepper and Jonnie West will be rotated at shooting guard and I expect Huggins to ride the hot hand on a game-to-game basis. All three of those guys are able to knock down big shots and get white-hot. I expect Pepper to get slightly more minutes than Mitchell and West, as he's the biggest and most physical of the three. If Pepper can develop a mid-range runner over the course of the season, he could be one of the Mountaineers' more prolific scorers this season.
4. What's going on in the frontcourt? The Mountaineers have a tremendous amount of muscle up front, and this season I expect them to use it. Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and John Flowers are expected to hold their spots in the starting lineup all season long. Though there isn't a true center among them, there's no shortage of size, speed and scoring ability. Kevin Jones will emerge this season as on of the Big East's best players, a dominating blend of shooting ability, rebounding and hustle. Jones is a great inside-outside player who forces opponents to guard him on the perimeter and in the paint. I expect this to be the season he becomes a household name.
Kilicli, after missing 20 games due to suspension last season, has already made dramatic steps forward. He has slimmed down and seems more athletic than last year. A dominating scorer and terrifying physical presence in the paint, Kilicli will be counted on to take a big role on this year's squad. John "So Icey" Flowers is the utility man in the frontcourt who does a little bit of everything. A long, lean presence on the board and on the defensive, Flowers is also an underrated shooter who has consistently improved his game each year he's been on campus.
Cam Thoroughman, Danny Jennings and Noreen will come of the bench to spell the frontcourt. Thoroughman will reprise his roll as enforcer/scrapper and be called on to muck it up a little bit against physical opponents. Jennings looks like he's still a year away from being a full time player, but is invaluable as a rebounder and defender and adds muscle to an already muscular frontcourt. If Noreen can find a role, any role, it's just gravy.
5. What does the season hold? Despite last year's team collecting serious hardware, this year's Mountaineer squad enters the season flying under the radar, unranked and predicted to finish outside the conference's top four spots. This will give Huggins plenty of ammunition in practice in the huddle to not let the guys get ahead of themselves with lofty expectations. What we do know is that any Huggins-led team is going to come prepared to play night in and night out and ready to exert their slow, defensive game on any opponent. We might not know who the scorers are going to be yet, but we do know that the Mountaineers will play defense and crash the boards with the best of them. I expect the 'Eers to fly under the radar for awhile, but finish in the top third of the conference. Once they're in a tournament situation in March, anything can happen. While they might not come into the season as highly touted as their neighbors to the north, I expect the when the dusts clears the boys from Morgantown will once again find themselves among college basketball's elite.
Fearless Forecast: 21-8, Fourth place in the Big East conference, Big East Tournament runner-up, Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tourney